DVD Review: Shoot the Pianist

Starring: Charles Aznavour, Marie Dubois, Michele Mercier
Director: Francois Truffaut
Rating: 10/10

Francois Truffaut’s second movie is his most Godardian and exuberantly Nouvelle Vague-ish – an adaptation of a pulp thriller by American noir favourite David Goodis, filmed in a jaunty, japing manner yet shot through with the director’s characteristic tristesse.

vlcsnap-2014-09-05-15h36m29s211The pint-sized crooner Charles Aznavour, with his sad, simian face, is perfectly cast as Charlie/Eddie, a one-time concert pianist who was unable to enjoy success because of his incurable shyness and stage fright and has now given up on life and tinkles the ivories in a seedy dance bar. He is offered a tantalizing glimpse of redemption in the form of a pretty barmaid (Marie Dubois) who has a soft spot for him, but is thrown into turmoil when he finds himself harassed by a pair of comical, bickering thugs who want to track down his brother.

A self-confessed Puritan, for much of the film Charlie’s lips are pursed in disapproval ofvlcsnap-2014-09-05-15h50m07s225 the world’s venality and sinfulness. But that’s not how the movie feels about things. Truffaut directs like the world’s his oyster. The story is told with a freedom and brio that allows for quicksilver changes of mood from comedy to drama, from light-heartedness to melancholy. Visually, the film is just as adventurous, with striking widescreen compositions, an exaggerated Felliniesque dance sequence, rough and ready street scenes and post-modern sight gags (most famously, a cut-away to one of the hoods’ grandmothers dropping dead suddenly, her name having been taken in vain) all juggled with enormous panache.

vlcsnap-2014-09-05-15h46m30s82It’s a style which makes life’s unpredictability feel like a good thing, especially when there’s always a chance of running into a cool, self-possessed woman such as Clarisse, the worldly-wise prostitute who is Charlie’s next door neighbour (a risqué, knickers-waving turn by the beautiful Michele Mercier, a Bardot-like starlet of the early ’60s now best remembered as the victim in the Telephone segment of Mario Bava’s Black Sabbath).

Shoot the Pianist is over in a flash, but it lingers in the memory far more than many a vlcsnap-2014-09-05-15h43m42s196weightier, more considered film. It’s one of the most fun and engaging of all Truffaut’s movies. The widescreen black and white sparkles on this DVD transfer, with pin-sharp detail and no trace of dirt or damage. The disc comes with an invaluable audio commentary by cinematographer Raoul Coutard, a key figure of the French New Wave, which will enthral anyone interested in the technical aspects of making a Nouvelle Vague movie. He tells you exactly what cameras, film stock and floodlights were used, and explains the difficulties of shooting with live sound. Given how celebrated they are for their freshness and spontaneity, it’s astonishing to realize that most of these early Nouvelle Vague movies had dialogue that was post-synchronized – i.e., dubbed in later, rather than recorded on set. This commentary is the cherry on top of what is one of the most desirable of Artificial Eye’s Truffaut Collection.

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